Debates: At the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, foreign and Russian participants weigh in on the factors that are holding Russia back from developing a world-class innovation economy.

Technological innovation was one of the key topics during the 2016 St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. Photo: Yury Smytyuk / TASS

The 20th annual St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF 2016), while focused primarily on economic issues, is also taking a broader look at how technological innovation will determine Russia’s developmental trajectory over the next 20-30 years. For Russia, one primary concern is how to commercialize the products created by the nation’s innovators as a way of generating future economic growth.

This means that Russia needs to give more support to future-oriented projects and allocate more research towards emerging technological markets, such as those being considered within the framework of the new National Technology Initiative (NTI). But to modernize its economy, Russia should deal with some inherent problems, which stop it from becoming an innovation-driven country. Experts and officials, who took the floor at the 2016 St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, shed light on the reasons why Russia is lagging behind. 

Loren Graham,  a professor of the History of Science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the author of the book “Lonely Ideas”

Why does Russia, with its very large and very creative scientific and technical establishment, do so poorly in benefiting economically from the products of their research? A key to answering this question is seeing the difference between “invention” and “innovation.” To invent something means that you have something on your laboratory bench or a process on your computer that works and does something that never has been done before. If you’ve done that, you are an inventor.

However, to be an innovator means a lot more. It means taking that product and making a commercial success of it that benefits not only you but the society in which you live. The contradictory and strange fact is that Russians are excellent inventors and very poor innovators.

The answer to this is the failure of Russia to develop a society in which the brilliance of its citizens can find fulfillment in economic development. All the leaders of Russia, from the time of the tsars to the present, have believed that the answer to the problem of modernization is technology itself rather than the social and economic environment that promotes the development and commercialization of technology. Ideas by themselves are not enough.

What are these characteristics that are necessary in order for technological ideas to develop and become commercial successes?  A democratic form of government, a free market economy with investors seeking new technology, protection of intellectual property, control over corruption and crime, a legal system in which the accused has a chance of being declared innocent, a culture that tolerates criticism and allows independence, a willingness to learn from failure in order to try again. These are some of the intangible characteristics of the innovative society.

At the present moment, the leaders of Russia are trying to modernize but, unfortunately, like their predecessors, they try to separate technology from socio-political systems. They say they support Skolkovo, the ambitious and expensive Silicon Valley project, and at the same time they suppress political opponents and entrepreneurs, they twist the legal system to serve their own ends, they sign laws that threaten Russians who work with foreigners with treason, and they create a regressive authoritarian regime. Such policies do not lead to a society with risk-taking entrepreneurs and rebellious innovators.

[This is an abridged version of the speech made during the session “Technologies as a pass into tomorrow: Evolve or die” at SPIEF 2016]

Vladimir Fortov, the president of Russian Academy of Sciences

The question of implementing scientific achievements is urgent for Russia. According to UNESCO’s findings in the beginning of the 2000s, the most significant innovation of humanity was the American system of innovation, which brings fundamental research into practice.

Unfortunately, we are too far removed from this. The introduction of inventions in our country is a very complex process hampered by overwhelming bureaucracy, notwithstanding the government’s efforts. Speaking about the future, for us it is necessary to eradicate these bureaucratic barriers and make a quick and effective introduction of inventions easier to implement.

There are no common solutions for this problem. The innovation system of China is different from the one of the U.S. – each country finds its own recipe and copying it won’t work. Out of 200 countries on the planet, only two dozen of them have good innovation systems and we will have to establish one along with a system of financing scientific research and innovations.

Today, there is a paradox in Russia: 70 percent of funds allocated to science are given by the state while 30 percent comes from business and foreign investors.

This is completely different in the countries with a developed innovation economy: 70 percent are provided by companies that benefit from it and become more competitive, while 30 percent is provided by the authorities that also support a system of encouraging investment activity.

Without addressing this issue, Russia will not be able to enter the second half of the 21st century as a competitive actor on the innovation market.

[This is an abridged and adapted version of the speech made during the session “What will the Mid-21st century look like?” at SPIEF 2016]

Arkady Dvorkovich, the deputy prime minister of Russia

Five years ago, three out of 83 governors in Russia were familiar with the word “start-up” – others didn’t even know what it was. There was only Yandex and maybe ten more companies that fell under the term.

Today, all the governors know what it is and there are thousands of start-ups in the country created over these five years. Not all of them succeeded, because out of ten thousand, nine thousand are likely to fail. But still there are a few thousand of them that are already reaping benefits. The environment may not be ideal right now but it gave an opportunity for these entrepreneurs to create thousands of businesses.

[This is an abridged version of the speech made during the session “Technologies as a pass into tomorrow: Evolve or die” at SPIEF 2016]